Groenen: Judo prepared me for the pressure of big games
One year ago today Jackie Groenen brilliantly settled a France 2019 semi-final
She describes that moment and the atmospheres at that tournament
Manchester United, Johan Cruyff and the Olympics are also on the menu
Jack Groenen will readily admit it: he’s the daddy of football fanatics. His father Jef played for Willem II. He himself made it to the Dutch lower leagues, but never got to fulfil his fantasy of wearing oranje in a major tournament.
That dream, he decided, would be lived through his son, whom he'd name Jack. Jack never arrived. Merel did in mid-1993. Jackie followed 18 months later. After watching Jack play in a match, Merel proclaimed that she wanted to become a footballer. Jackie, then just three, said she wanted the same.
Soon, Jack had quit his job to focus on flowering his girls' gifts. The sisters would watch videos of Johan Cruyff and Dennis Bergkamp as their father drove them all across Belgium, where they grew up, to play football. When relentless rain impeded their practise, Jack risked a rollicking from wife Lisette and built a six-by-five-metre pitch inside the family home.
Was Jack’s slog justified? Well, Merel became a professional footballer. Jackie did even better. “I was sure Jackie was going to be an Olympic champion in 2016,” said her father.
Jackie played in the what was a virtual playoff for a place at the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament Rio 2016. Vivianne Miedema had the Netherlands on the cusp of qualification, but Olivia Schough‘s equaliser, and the remarkable reflexes of Hedvig Lindahl, silenced Rotterdam and sent Sweden through.
Yet it wasn’t by orchestrating play on the Maracana grass that Jack envisioned Jackie winning gold, but executing Ronda Rousey-patented hip throws, valley drops and hell strangles on Igusa-straw tatamis. Jackie Groenen was, indeed, a five-time Dutch judo champion and one of Europe's finest judokas.
Jackie ultimately quit judo to focus on football, and she’s in line to finally participate in the Olympics next year. On the anniversary of the wonder goal that sent the Netherlands into the FIFA Women’s World Cup France 2019™ Final, the midfielder spoke to FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: You had the chance to pursue a career as a judoka or a footballer. How tough was that decision? Jackie Groenen: I always kind of knew that if I could make it in football, it was going to be football. It’s something that I grew up with and something that’s more embedded in our family than judo. I started playing football when I was around four. Judo was kind of like a hobby that got out of hand. But when I had to make the decision it was very hard for me because I’d been training with the same judo coach at the same clubs from the age of six, ten-to-12 times a week. We were doing really well, we’d won a lot of titles and we were working our way up to the Olympics. So when I had to say I wasn’t going to do it, it was really, really hard for me because I felt I was disappointing him. Deep down I think I always knew it was going to be football, but I always hoped I could do both.
How would you compare your mindset, nerves between walking out to the tatami in judo and walking out of the tunnel to play football? I think judo was a bit more nerve-racking than football. With judo you have to do it all by yourself. You also realise before you go on the mat that one mistake can cost you the whole tournament. With football, you have the back-up of your team-mates and you have more time – if you fall 2-0 behind you can fix it. Judo was more stressful for me than football ever has been. And my parents also say the same. They would watch me fight and be so nervous. I think judo prepared me to play in the bigger games in football – the World Cup, the EURO – because I knew how to deal with a lot of pressure.
Moving on to that World Cup, what did Sarina Wiegman tell the Netherlands players in the huddle before the start of extra time? She told us we had to stay calm because at that point we were controlling the game. In the first half we struggled a bit, Sweden had the upper hand, but in the second half we did. Before the referee blew the final whistle, it felt like a goal could come at any time. It felt like we had more energy and power to pull through in extra time. She told us to relax, keep doing what we’re doing, and [the goal] would come. But I can’t remember everything she said because I was a bit stressed and thirsty! (laughs)
You mentioned Sweden being on top in the first half. What did you think of Sari van Veenendaal’s performance? She was amazing. She was amazing through the whole tournament. She kept us in the World Cup more than a couple of times. She was very important for us the whole tournament, but especially in that game. Sweden had two or three really good chances in the first half, and she produced great saves.
You’d only scored two goals in over 50 caps. What went through your mind when the ball fell to you quite far out? I didn’t really think about having a shot on goal. It was just something that happened. The funny thing was that, as soon as I hit it, I knew it was going to go in. I don’t remember watching it rolling into the net – I just knew it had gone in. Shooting from long-distance isn’t really in my game much. I don’t score many goals. My role’s quite a different one in the national team. But it was something I’d been working on before the World Cup, and it was a good time to pull it off!
How did it feel? It was something else. It was very special for me and my family. Such a stadium, such an atmosphere. This is really selfish, but I was kind of hoping no-one else would score! (laughs) Holland have so many match-winning players. I’m not used to it, so I wanted it to stay 1-0!
What did you think of the Final? It was a very hard game for us. I think that when they went 1-0 up it kind of broke us. The whole tournament took a lot of energy out of all of us – we’d had to dig deep and win a lot of matches towards the end, we’d been to extra time against Sweden, we had one less day to recover – and when they scored it was like everyone got cramp. Normally we’d be like, ‘They’ve got one, we’ll score two’, but I think the impact of the tournament stopped us. I haven’t watched it back because I didn’t want to, so it’s hard for me to say anything in particular about it, but it was a hard one to take. I think it will be good to watch it back and see what went wrong. Maybe I’ll do it after this call!
What did you think of the atmospheres at France 2019? The tournament was insane. The atmospheres were unbelievable. Especially for Holland. A lot of the games we played, especially in the beginning, we had so many fans. People from Holland only had to drive three or four hours to see the games. And our fans are so passionate. It felt like it was a home tournament again. The games got bigger, the stadiums got bigger, the atmospheres were really special. I’ll never forget it.
How excited are you to play at the Olympics? I’m very excited. I’ve envisioned participating in the Olympic so many times, but it was in judo. We had a plan. We were working towards the Rio Olympics. I would have been a good age to compete in judo at those Olympics. It will be really special to go to the Olympics now in a different sport.
Is the target to win an Olympic medal or is the feeling after France 2019, ‘Gold or nothing?’ We’re quite a down-to-earth country. Every time we go into a tournament, we want to give our best and see where it ends. But I think after the last two tournaments – winning the EURO and coming second in the World Cup – we want a medal. We’ve always been competitive but I think once you’ve won a tournament once, you want more. We want to go to the Olympics to show that we can play good football, but we also want to win.
USA are the favourites for Olympic gold. Do you think they are on another level to the Netherlands or do you think you can match them? I’ve seen them play a lot of times and they have a great squad. But we’ve been growing so much over the last few years, and I really think we can match them. I think the strength of our team is that we have so many players who are different to each other, who have different styles, who complement each other. I think our team is very strong.
Switching to club football, there’s a picture of a young you in a Manchester United shirt… I grew up supporting Manchester United. My mum, she works abroad a lot. When we were kids there was a rule that when she went abroad, she would have to bring a football jersey from wherever she was. I have around 50 jerseys from different clubs in tiny kids’ sizes! Man U was the first one, so that one stuck. I loved the shirt. I used to wear it all day.
How did it feel to sign for Manchester United? Honestly, it was just the best thing. It was a dream. I began following them as soon as they started up in 2018, but I was under contract at Frankfurt and I couldn’t really leave. When they contacted me, it wasn’t a hard decision to join.
How has your first year been at the club? I’ve met so many cool people at the club and done so many cool things in the city. Football-wise, the best experience was the first time we beat Man City. It’s obviously a big game, so that was really nice. We’re critical at Man U, but we were pleased to be fourth in our first season [in the Women’s Super League]. We’re on the right track, but I think if we don’t drop the couple of stupid points we dropped last season, we can do even better next year. It’s our goal be on top very soon.
You're Dutch and you wear the No14 shirt… I always watched football with my dad and granddad, and they were both very into Johan Cruyff. From an early age I had lots of videos of Johan Cruyff, we would watch his interviews, my dad would give me books about him. I have so many books about Johan Cruyff. So he became someone I really looked up to. When I signed my first contract in Germany I chose the No14 and I’ve never really played with another number after that. It’s definitely not that I’m comparing myself to him, but when you look up to someone, and you can wear the same number, it gives you a special feeling. Last year the Cruyff Foundation contacted me to see if I wanted to join. I was like, ‘Yes, Yes!’ But my management wanted to see what they do first. We looked into it and everything they do is so special, so I’m really happy they asked me to join. I can help the environment and the people in Holland.
What did you think of the next Women’s World Cup going to Australia and New Zealand in 2023? I honesty can’t wait! I’ve been to New Zealand once before and I love the country. I think a World Cup in New Zealand and Australia will be very special.
Finally, what do you like to do in your spare time? I’m very into music. I play the guitar a lot. I have a record player, so I have a lot of vintage records. I just hang out with my friends and make a lot of music with them. I’m very into Fleetwood Mac, Queen, The Beatles – stuff like that.